After a summer dominated by Donald Trump, one senator is finding himself and his ideas increasingly in the spotlight: Jeff Sessions.
With a high-profile appearance next to Trump at his stadium rally in Alabama and months of glowing coverage from conservative sites such as Breitbart, Sessions’ brand of Republican politics has resonated on the campaign trail in a way that directly threatens the GOP establishment.
In a lengthy hallway interview last week, Sessions expounded on 2016, the appeal of Trump and the failures of Washington.
He said he’s thinking of making a formal endorsement for president in the primaries for the first time as a senator.
"A few people might be interested in how I would evaluate the candidates. … I'm not going to go out and just jump out and start advocating for somebody that I'm not really sure represents the best for America," Sessions said.
While he said he didn't know if Trump was ultimately "the right person," Sessions said he credits him for talking about the two issues — trade and immigration — that the senator has long believed appeal to working-class voters who aren't being represented well in Washington.
Sessions is in his 19th year representing Alabama in the Senate, but doesn't have much influence with the party's bosses — and they don't have much influence with him. That has endeared him to the GOP's restless base.
He waged a lonely fight against President Barack Obama's push for fast-track Trade Promotion Authority, the passage of which so far is the signature achievement of the Republican Congress but has been labeled a "disaster" by Trump.
Even frequent Sessions ally Ted Cruz of Texas initially voted with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Obama, leaving just a handful of Senate Republicans consistently on Sessions' side.
And few senators are in the Sessions-Trump camp of not just opposing amnesty for immigrants here illegally, but hitting the pause button on the more than 1 million legal immigrants who come and stay each year.
Sessions says it's time for the Republican Party to enter the confessional.
"People like confession. We need to say, 'We've been too pure in this trade business. ... You are right, American people — we have not defended you sufficiently on the world stage in these trade agreements and we're going to negotiate tougher and we're going to defend our interests more effectively.
"'And yes, you’re right. You've been asking for 30 years to end this lawlessness. We don't have enough jobs for our own people. We're not going to keep bringing in millions of people, legal and illegal, until you have a better chance to get your children, your family, a job. And I care about you, and I don't care what Wall Street money says.'
"If we'll say that, then I think there's a real sense of defection from the Democratic vote."
Sessions says too many of his colleagues don't have a sense for what working-class families are going through with years of stagnant wages.
"We have too many people that are in denial. They spend too much time in fundraisers with rich people and they don’t deeply understand the pain of middle-class, salaried people," he said.
Sessions believes Republicans could attract many people who Mitt Romney alienated with his "47 percent" comment.
"The people making $50,000 and below, a group Romney was killed in, are anxious for a leader who cares about them, who has classic Republican social policies. They are not happy with Democrats and the statist eight years we'll have under Obama," he said.
Sessions also said he thinks many people disaffected by the GOP — or politics entirely — would turn out for that kind of message, citing an air-conditioning businessman he met back home at a small town grocery who hadn’t voted in the past two elections but plans to vote for Trump.
Sessions sounded vindicated as he talked of the Trump surge coming alongside his tough stands on immigration.
Sessions and Trump had an extensive meeting last week on trade and immigration in Sessions' Capitol hideaway after Trump's rally with Cruz against the Iran deal, with Sessions singing Trump's praises afterward in a statement.
"Mr. Trump has outlined trade and immigration policies that serve the national interest, not the special interests," Sessions said in the statement.
In his interview with CQ Roll Call, he said, "He met with us and certainly adopted a lot of the suggestions that I've been making over the years and all of a sudden he's surged to the top of the polls."
“I would say to those Republicans who say the only way to win elections is to be more and more moderate, and not be combative, and not speak out on the issues the American people care about — immigration and trade — [they] ought to be a little more humble in their political prognosticating.”
Sessions meanwhile, isn't afraid of the populist label and noted he's been attacked as a "nativist," a term he doesn’t see a problem with.
"What’s wrong with that? … What's wrong with putting America first? As a lawyer, we represent the people who voted for us. That's who our duty is owed to. To them.
"And we should be doing what's in their best interest.
"And this idea of somebody sitting in Wall Street, a million-plus dollars a year in income, saying this is all right to bring in an unlimited number of people to cause trouble and you know, financial difficulties for our schools and our hospitals? They don't live with that. It's easy for them to say that. Who are these people? Who's speaking for the average person?"
Ironically, many people now see Trump, a billionaire, as that person. Sessions said voters find his can't-be-bought, self-funding campaign appealing.
A Restless Base Of the four sitting Republican senators running for president, only one, Cruz, is doing halfway decently in recent polls. A recent CNN poll had all four plus former Sen. Rick Santorum with just 15 percent combined, with about half of that for Cruz.
Immigration bill supporters Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina barely registered, as did Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has struck an uneasy political alliance with McConnell.
Sessions credited Cruz doing the best of the bunch with his running hard against the establishment.
"The congressional establishment has been too timid," he said. "I think we should seek to engage the big-government Democrats on the great issues of our time and win the debates," while Republican voters aren’t happy with leadership again and again punting rather than fighting.
Sessions credits the sophistication of the media and the voters on the GOP side.
"They know what show votes are," he said, calling out what has been a go-to move for leadership.
And while Republican leaders tout a Senate that is working again, Sessions couldn't name a major conservative accomplishment aside from the trade law he opposed.
"It's hard to even claim [the] Keystone Pipeline, because it was vetoed," he said. And while some other things have passed, "I don't think any of them have struck a nerve with the people that supported us."
Republicans earlier gave in to Obama's demands that they not defund his executive orders on immigration, and are already saying they won't threaten to defund Planned Parenthood , either.
"I know the leadership have given a lot of thought to this. … They think this is the best strategy, even on Planned Parenthood. I don't agree. I don't agree if it means we acquiesce in the view, in the argument, that if we fund the entire government of the United States, but we don't fund Planned Parenthood, that we have shut down the government. How can the president possibly sell that?"
Sessions said it's "an abdication of the constitutional duty of the Congress" to fund what it sees fit, and if they give in, "then Congress has no power whatsoever over the purse."
The next few weeks will see that fight play out.
Meanwhile, while his positions are animating the Republican presidential primaries, Sessions says there hasn't been a sea change in support in Washington for his positions — yet.
"I haven't had a lot of people say I was right," he said with a grin.
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